Herbs and spices add flavor to our food. Besides increasing the palatability of otherwise bland foods, they work as digestive aids, the volatile oils in them having a therapeutic action on the digestive system and various other organ systems in the body. Their antimicrobial properties have long earned them an important place in food preservation methods such as drying and pickling.
Spices are frequently used in cooking in combination with herbs. However, by definition, herbs are leaves and young stems of tender, herbaceous plants. Although many herbs have a spicy bite to them, they are not true spices. That label belongs to the dried plant plants other than leaves. For example, pepper is a berry, cloves are young flower buds, cardamom is a fruit and cinnamon comes from the skin of the cinnamon tree.
It is interesting to note that, unlike herbs, most spices naturally grow in the tropical and subtropical parts of the world. That makes it a challenge to cultivate them in temperate regions, especially since some of them come from mature trees. However, the heated interiors of our homes can comfortably accommodate some low growing spices like ginger and turmeric.
Here are some of the spices you can try growing at home:
Ginger is often referred to as ginger root, but it is the fleshy, underground stem or rhizome of a perennial plant called Zingiber officinale. Originating in South China, it later spread to other tropical areas, including West Africa and India from where it reached Britain and other European countries. Ginger is popularly used in savory curries as well as in confectionery and baked goods. It is used in herbal teas not only for flavor but its medicinal value.
How to grow ginger
The rhizome has a branching habit and sends out new shoots as it grows and spreads. The plant can be easily propagated from 1” to 2” pieces of the rhizome containing, at least, one ‘eye’ or growing bud.
Fill a large tub with rich, well-draining potting mix. Lay several pieces of ginger 6” apart on the surface of the tub. Cover with an inch of sand and press down firmly. Keep the tub in a well-lit area or under grow lights. Water regularly when the soil feels dry and feed once in two weeks with a general purpose fertilizer.
When grown in tubs indoors, ginger can be treated as a perennial. Dig into the soil and break off only as much of the rhizome as you require at a time.
Ginger can be easily grown outdoors in USDA zones 10 and above. Choose a partially sunny location where it can receive a regular water supply. Good drainage is essential, though. When planted in early spring, it will continue to send up aerial stems all through summer, but the leaves may start to yellow in fall. Garden grown ginger is ideally treated as an annual since frost can rot the rhizomes. Dig up the entire plant, shake off the soil, and harvest the rhizome by removing the aerial stems.
The ginger you harvest can be dried, candied or pickled for future use.
To make dried ginger, lanch the rhizomes in boiling water, skin and slice them before drying in the shade. Store the dried slices in airtight jars or grind them into ginger powder to be used in cookies and other baked goods. Powdered ginger mixed with honey is a very effective cough remedy.
Candied ginger and pickled ginger are prepared in sugar syrup and vinegar respectively. They can be used in small quantities to control nausea and improve digestion.
Turmeric is a colored relative of ginger and imparts not only a bright golden yellow color but a spicy flavor to condiments and curries. Named Curcuma longa, this Indian native can be grown indoors much the same way as ginger. If the antimicrobial and anti-tumor properties ofturmeric do not prompt you to use it more liberally in your cooking, growing your own just might.
How to grow turmeric
Sourcing planting material may be a challenge because turmeric is more often sold and used in its dried form. However, if you can get a few pieces of the rhizome to start with, they will multiply every year, providing you with more than you’d need.
Stick pieces of turmeric into tubs or pots of the well-draining potting mix. Cover with an inch of soil and water well. Provide plenty of light so that the large leaves that emerge have a lush green look.
Grow turmeric outdoors in USDA zones 9 onwards. Double till the beds to facilitate good root run and drainage. Harvest in fall when the leaves begin to wilt.
After harvest, boil turmeric rhizomes for 35 to 45 minutes and then dry. This process enhances the color and increases shelf life. The dried stems can be stored as such or made into turmeric powder.
Use turmeric to add color to your mustard and other homemade sauces as well as healthy batters for deep frying. A pinch of turmeric can be applied to mouth ulcers to speed up their healing.
The name Coriander can mean an herb and a spice. The leaves of the Coriandrum sativum plant is the cilantro or Chinese parsley used extensively in Chinese, Indian and Mexican cuisine. The spice is the dried seeds of the same plant, but very different in taste.
How to grow coriander
Coriander is a quick-growing annual that can be grown indoors at any time of the year. To grow it from seeds, rub the globose coriander seeds between the palms of the hand to break them into halves. 3-4 of these can be sown in large pots. Keep the soil evenly moist. The first sets of true leaves are simple with uneven edges, but finely divided lacy leaves will appear as the plant matures. When the seedlings fall over, just cover their bases with more soil pat down.
Coriander prefers cool weather, so you can sow it in well-prepared beds early in spring or even in fall in places with milder climates. When grown outside, it thrives as an herb during the cool season, but when the temperature rises, the plant bolts, sending up a long stem carrying the flowers that would eventually develop into coriander seeds. Bolting can be induced in the indoor plants by withdrawing water.
After most of the flowers have turned into green globular fruits, you should watch out for their changing color. Cut the entire stems and place them in a large brown paper cover to dry. All the fruits will eventually get detached. Dry them in the sun and store in dry jars. You can grind the dry coriander seeds into powder or lightly toast them to bring out a nutty flavor. Coriander is an integral part of the spice mixture called garam masala.
This Mediterranean native named Cuminum cyminum is a popular spice all over the world. It can be easily grown outdoors in USDA Zones 5 to 10, so there’s hardly any reason to grow it indoors unless you are short of gardening space.
How to grow cumin
Sow the seeds indoors in large pots or out in the garden in a sunny location. Keep the soil moist, but ensure good drainage. The plants take 4 -5 months from sprouting to harvest, but heat and drought can shorten the growth phase. When the small flowers turn into clusters of tiny elongated fruits, care should be taken to harvest them before they fall off the plant. Dry the flower heads in large paper bags until the fruits fall off. Dry them in the sun and clean them by winnowing.
The dried cumin is used whole as part of tempering mixtures or ground into powder. You can enhance the flavor by roasting the cumin before grinding. You can use both types in curries.
Garlic or Allium sativum is a very easy bulb to grow indoors or outdoors. All it takes is separating the cloves and sticking them into moist, well-draining soil.
How to grow garlic
You can start the bulbs indoors any time of the year, but fall planting is best for outdoor beds. Longer growing season gives the plants enough time to develop good-sized bulbs. Keep the soil evenly moist, but water logging can result in bulb rot. The leaves of the garlic can be used as an herb, but snipping them too often can affect the bulb size.
The mature bulbs can be harvested when the leaves start to wilt in summer. Dig up all the bulbs and dry them until the outer covering feels papery. The leaves can be braided together and hung in the pantry to save storage space. Skinned garlic cloves can be pickled in vinegar or made into garlic powder after drying thinly sliced cloves in the sun or a food dehydrator.
Onions are counted as vegetables, but dried onion powder is an excellent spice to add to all kinds of dishes. Named Allium cepa, they come from the same family as garlic and leeks.
How to grow onion
You can grow onions from seeds or sets. Plant them in shallow tubs of rich potting soil and keep them moist at all times, but not too wet. As the bulbs develop underground, they push themselves through the soil surface, indicating when they are ready to be harvested. You can wait until the leaves wilt to allow the bulbs to attain maximum size.
Pull up the onions and hang them up to dry until the outer layer crinkles like paper. Slice the onions thin and dry them in a food dehydrator. Powder it and keep in air-tight bottles.
Saffron obtained by drying the stigmas of the mountain crocus (Crocus sativus) is one of the costliest spices. If you can grow your own, there is nothing like it. Crocus bulbs are prone to rotting in wet weather, so growing them indoors is your best bet.
How to grow saffron
Crocus corms are the planting material; you have to source them from reputed nurseries. Prepare the pots by filling sand or gravel into the bottom of the pots to ensure good drainage. Add rich, well-draining potting mix on top of the sand layer. Push 2 to 3 crocus corms into the soil and cover them up with more sand and soil mixture.
Place the crocus pots in an unheated room and provide bright grow lights or a few hours of direct sun. The crocus plants that grow from the bulbs will start to wilt after a while. Moving the pots to a warmer room will trigger flowering. Collect the three red stigmas from each flower and dry them on a piece of parchment paper. Store them in dry containers and use a few strands at a time to add flavor and color to rice-based dishes.
This slightly hot, colorful spice is the dried and powdered skin of mild chili peppers referred to as Capsicum annum. However, the bell peppers that we use as vegetables are not ideal for making paprika because they are way too fleshy. Grow your own supply of thin-skinned peppers at home to make your own paprika.
How to grow paprika
You need a bright, sunny area to grow the peppers inside the home. Sow the seeds in seed starting trays or directly into rich, well-draining soil. It is best to grow a single plant in each pot. To get a handful of the powdered spice, you may need several plants.
Harvest the chilies when they are ripe and bright red in color. Dry them well, first by hanging them up in bunches and then spreading in a single layer in semi shade until they are brittle. After grinding the chilies into a smooth or coarse powder, dry it again on a paper mat. Dampness can cause mold, so store the dry chilies as well as the paprika in air-tight jars.
Fennel or Foeniculum vulgare dulce is a delightful spice with a sweet taste. You can grow it at home if you have plenty of space to set aside. A few plants will give enough seeds for your use, but the plants tend to grow very tall and large.
How to grow fennel
Fennel hates to be transplanted, so you should sow the seeds directly in the pots. Press 2-3 seeds into rich, well-draining potting mix in each pot. The fennel leaves, as well as the swollen, bulb-like bases, are eaten, but you need to let the plants flower and go to seed to get your spice. You don’t have to wait long, though. The flowers appear in about 6 weeks and are quickly followed by ripening fruits. Gather them by covering the plant with a paper bag and cutting off the stem. Dry the spice in shade and store in air-tight containers.
Fennel can be chewed as a mouth freshener or used to make tea to soothe stomach upsets. This sweet spice goes well with curries and confectionery too.
Mustard is an excellent spice to grow at home because you can make your own mustard sauces with it. The different species of mustard plants such as Brassica nigra, B. juncea, and B. alba belong to the cabbage family. The plants are easily raised from seeds.
How to grow mustard
Start the seeds in a shallow tray and transplant them into pots when the plants develop two sets of true leaves. The seedlings, as well as the young leaves, can be used as greens, so you can thin them out as necessary. Keep the pots in a sunny location and water them regularly. The thin, long seed pods that follow the flowers contain several seeds. They should be harvested before they burst open. Cut off the stalks while they are still green and dry them in the shade inside a sack. The seeds will require winnowing to clean them.
Use whole seeds for tempering or grind them with vinegar to make your own mustard sauce.
Although most of these spices are readily available at the grocery, there’s nothing like growing your own and enjoying their unique flavors and medicinal properties.